Monday, May 27, 2013

Forgotten on Memorial Day

On this Memorial Day, I cannot help but think about the trademarked slogan of the Wounded Warrior Project (see link at end), “The greatest casualty is being forgotten,” and how the phrase is so descriptive of Graceland Cemetery.

Entrance to Graceland Cemetery, Yeadon, Pennsylvania

Graceland, that full city block-sized, um, field in Yeadon, Pennsylvania supposedly has thousands of United States veterans of many wars buried beneath its grass. The place looks like one of those memorial parks with the flush-to-the-ground grave markers – except there very few grave markers of any kind. On this Memorial Day in 2013, the bare flag poles behind the entrance sign stare at you in mute witness to what had been and what might have been. Honestly, if it were not for the oddly striking white marble monuments scattered here and there across the field, you would think it was just a park.

There’s a community athletic field alongside Graceland Cemetery, and housing on the other two sides. An industrial company sits near the entrance to the grounds, at Ruskin Lane and Bailey Road (Map). The cemetery is off the beaten path, a few blocks from the center of town. Yeadon, by the way, is a small town in Delaware County, which borders Philadelphia on Philly’s southwest side. I used to live nearby, and I never knew the cemetery was there.

Graceland, which was established in 1774, has been referred to as North Mount Moriah Cemetery since around 1895. This was due mainly to its geographic proximity to the much larger Mount Moriah Cemetery (established in 1855), which is about a half mile away. Graceland was not, and is not part of Mount Moriah Cemetery. It has, however, been known by other names, e.g. Buren Hill Cemetery and Sylvan Memorial Park.

Civil War headstone lying in Graceland Cemetery
The sign at the entrance to “Graceland Memorial Burial Ground” (as it is called on the Delaware County History website) says that 1600 Civil War veterans are buried here. So why no fanfare? Why the bare flagpoles? Did they move the bodies as some websites indicate? My question is this: if all the bodies were removed, why is it still called a ‘cemetery” on the sign?

Some burial records exist, but not all. As the entrance sign indicates, Graceland is home to an “unknown number of civilian burials.” On the Delaware County History website, a few hundred names are listed. Among them, eleven veterans. If the records exist, the federal government can be petitioned to have new grave markers made to be placed on these veterans’ graves. If worn stones exist, they will be replaced for free. Why the town of Yeadon has not requisitioned the federal government for new stones for the veterans’ graves is beyond me. According to these records, the locations of eleven veterans’ graves are known, based on a 1936 survey of the remaining headstones. 

This 1938 account of the burial situation indicates that the body count of veteran “soldiers” is closer to 5600. It goes on to state “Many of the old stones have been damaged and carried away and broken by the boys who frequent the cemetery as a play-field. Others have been used to form a wall at the rear of the cemetery. I should judge about fifty of the old fashioned marble, three inches thick type, made up the wall.” According to court documents, the Borough of Yeadon condemned the cemetery in 1964 because it was a “public nuisance.” It was closed to future burials and most of the head stones were removed. I assume the handful of large marble and granite monuments still on the grounds were left there simply because they were too large to move.

One of a handful of lone monuments left in Graceland Cemetery
I cannot help but wonder if one of the reasons for building the athletic field - Kerr Field - next door (a basketball game was in progress during my visit), was to discourage continued use of the graveyard as a playing field. At least the sacredness of the ground has is being observed – there appears to be no ball-playing of any kind in Graceland. Even though there are no gates or fencing, the locals obviously avoid walking through the cemetery to reach the basketball courts. There are also no paths worn in the grass. Signs warn of a $300 fine for dumping.

On my first journey out to this place where the journey of so many others ended, I instinctively began walking toward the distant corner of the cemetery field, toward a lone eight-foot marble obelisk. Too preoccupied with the surrounding rowhomes (and their quaint graffiti), I hadn’t noticed the stubs of white marble sticking out of the grass here, there, everywhere. You can see that the grounds were at one time densely populated with headstones and other grave markers. White marble nubs, headstone bases, and an occasional section marker are scattered all over the field, flush with the ground. The stones that stick up more than an inch have been clipped and worn by the blades of riding mowers. The grass is cut routinely here, I assume by the town. At least this form of respect continues to be afforded the dead.  

Graceland is supposedly the home of reinterred bodies from various condemned cemeteries in Philadelphia (Macpelah in South Philly and Hanover Cemetery in Kensington, to name two). By 1938, Graceland still had an owner, but the property was not taken care of. Headstones were stolen and smashed. “By the time Yeadon took over the care of the cemetery, many of the stones had already been stolen or broken throughout years of neglect and were piled to the side or were decorating neighborhood gardens.

Lone monument on the edge of Graceland Cemetery
According to this reference, the town of Yeadon cleared the derelict cemetery in the 1960, dumped all the headstones somewhere, and [maybe] moved the bodies to Rockledge. Lawnview Cemetery in the Rockledge section of northeast Philadelphia had reportedly been the recipient of various cemetery reinterments, with mass graves being the burial method of choice. So much for a "blissful immortality." 

Whether there are 5600 veterans buried at Graceland, or even 1600, or just eleven, can we at least mark the eleven known graves of our war veterans? Flush-to-the-ground memorial plaques would not impede the grass-cutting. 

Naval Plot, Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia
So on this Memorial Day, 2013 – one hundred and fifty years after the Battle of Gettysburg – the lives of so many veterans have been forgotten. These were not unknown soldiers – the grave markers were originally there – we just, as a people, allowed them and their memory to be destroyed. Ironic that the original purpose of Memorial Day was to commemorate the lives of Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the American Civil War. It was originally known as Decoration Day, a day on which veterans’ graves would be decorated with flowers. The veterans’ graves in this particular cemetery will not be decorated as long as the locations of the graves remain unmarked. This disrespect to the veterans rests with us as the nation that created this memorial cemetery in the first place.

References and Acknowledgements:
Wounded Warrior Project
Thanks to Robert Hobdell for historical information.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Homeless in the Cemetery

Well, this was one of the weirdest cemetery experiences I have had. I was photographing Mikveh Israel Cemetery in west Philadelphia (55th and Market Streets) through the fence the other day and this guy came up to me saying his name was Marco Polo. He kept telling my friend John and I that he walks past this cemetery every day on his way to work and that we should call Channel 29 television about the deplorable conditions in the cemetery. Other than some uncut grass, it really didn’t look that bad.

Mikveh Israel Cemetery, 55th and Market Streets, Philadelphia

John (L) and "Marco Polo"
So after taking a few photos of some monuments and headstones, Marco Polo finally told us why he likes this cemetery so much. “I slept in here when I was homeless - by that red bush over there.” We didn’t ask how long he camped out in the cemetery, but we all agreed that he was safer inside than he would have been outside. He seemed to have a genuine fondness for the cemetery and would not stop talking about how it should be "fixed up."

Market Street wall and gated entrance to Mikveh Israel Cemetery

If you know Philadelphia, you know that 55th and Market is right under the elevated train tracks that follow Market Street. And you might also guess this is inner city at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view). As in most major cities, this is where you find the cemeteries with the most character. Congregation Mikveh Israel keeps the grass cut and the fencing in place, which is about all that is needed to keep troublemakers out. 

Building near 55th and Market Streets, Philadelphia

The original Mikveh Israel Cemetery (the first Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, established in 1740) is located at Eighth and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia, near Pennsylvania Hospital (the nation’s first hospital, established in  1751 by Benjamin Franklin). Two additional plots of ground were added by Congregation Mikveh Israel – a second one at 11th and Federal Streets and a third one, which is the subject of this blog, at 55th and Market Streets. While I can find no information on the years in which the second and third cemeteries were established, the 55th and Market Street cemetery has headstones marked from as early as 1868 to as recent as 2008. This cemetery is actually labeled “inactive” on the website of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia (JGSGP). 

The tall marble obelisk you see in the photo above marks the grave of Rev. Isaac Leeser (1806 - 1868), "the most famous leader and spokesman of traditional Judaism in Antebellum America" (ref). He was a minister in Congregation Mikveh Israel, as well as founder and publisher of The Occident, a monthly anti-discriminatory periodical "devoted to the diffusion of knowledge on Jewish literature and religion." He translated the Hebrew bible into English in 1853.

 If you’d like to visit any of these three Jewish cemeteries, please note that you cannot actually get inside any of them without either A) having someone from Congregation Mikveh Israel unlock the gates (good luck with that); or B) climbing over the fence or wall (which I would not recommend). All three cemeteries are quite secure, though not actually guarded. All are well-maintained.

Further Reading and References:

Find-a-Grave link to each of the three Philadelphia Mikveh Israel cemeteries in Philadelphia

History of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel Cemetery

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sleeping, Resting, Waiting ...

We see these words on tombstones and cemetery monuments all the time. If you’re like me, you think its just a way to soften the blow of death for those left behind. The child is dead, for instance, but to make us feel better, we think of it as the long sleep. The implication of course is that (if you’re a Christian) you’ll be together once again in heaven. Seems to go hand-in-hand with Victorian sensibilities relating to death and the mourning arts. However, the idea of death as "sleep" has much older origins.

"Koimeterion" is the ancient Greek word for "sleeping room." The verb "koiman" means "to sleep." A cemetery, then, originally may have been thought of as "sleeping quarters," temporary lodging. This “temporary sleep” is put into perspective by Mark C. Taylor in his book Grave Matters: (2004) "In the Early Christian tradition, which has been so important in shaping the space and determining the significance of cemeteries and graves in the West, the cemetery was seen as a temporary resting place where the dead awaited resurrection.

So what’s wrong with thinking we’ll all see our loved ones in heaven after we die? Seems kind of innocuous, right? Makes us feel better when we lose someone. What’s wrong with this picture hadn’t occurred to me until very recently. In the book, Good Omens (by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, 1990), the twelve-year-old antichrist gone good, states the following: “If you stopped tellin’ people its all sorted out after they’re dead, they might try sorting it all out while they’re alive.

So telling us Christian sheep to roll over and die, because things will be better in heaven, is like saying, “you have no control over this, so just accept it.” How can such passivity change the world for the better? Doesn’t that fly in the face of what Christianity is all about – love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that a mixed message (even a bit hypocritical)? If we really loved our neighbors as ourselves, we would try to work out our differences while we’re alive, not just let the differences continue hurting us. Saying someone will “burn in Hell for what he did” is the same thing. It might make us feel better to think that they'll get what’s coming to them after they die, if it seems like they can't be punished sufficiently for their deeds while still alive. 

So, after reading all this, everyone out there who feels we’ll get our “just rewards” after we die, raise your hand. Wake up people. A more practical epitaph is seen on the headstone below: "She hath done what she could." The phrase may seem trite at first glance, but really, maybe she really did do all that she could to make this world a better place. Shouldn't we be following in those footsteps?

Final Notes:
The first and last photos were taken at Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery. The "Resting" and "Waiting" stones were photographed in Wilmington, Delaware's Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.

Friday, May 10, 2013

No Dentists in the Afterlife

The best thing I can think of to look forward to when I die is this: no more root canals. For that matter, no more dental visits, ever! I thought of this as I was having my mouth tortured by Dr. Gorgon and his hygienist/assistant, Nurse Ratchett, this past Monday afternoon.

It should come as no surprise to you that my overactive imagination tends toward the morbid. But, ah, what bliss to look forward to an eternity of zero dental visits! This must have been my fifth or sixth root canal in my lifetime. Whoever dies with the most, wins. Actually, everyone who dies, wins, because there are no dentists in the afterlife! Hall-e-freaking-luia!!

Why Gorgon let me glimpse the goddam drill bit with my peripheral vision is beyond torture. Sweet Angry Jesus, doesn’t my imagination conjure up enough sadistic imagery without that?! Gorgon is usually good with the slight-of-hand, the l├ęger de main. Freaking thing must have been an inch-and-a-half long!

So then of course I thought of the tallest cemetery monument in America, the 150-foot obelisk at the Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia. This space needle of a monument memorializes a dentist! I swear to god! The thing is like a giant root canal needle! The obelisk, like a smaller version of the Washington Monument in D.C., memorializes the guy who started the Dental School at the University of Pennsylvania in West Philly, one Thomas Evans (1823-1897). 

Actually, according to the Woodlands’ website, “At his death in 1897, Evans' left his estate to the University of Pennsylvania to found a Dental School…” Evans pioneered such dental advances as using gold for filling cavities (“Dr. Bling?”) and using nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. (So wait - if Evans was using nitrous in the late 1800s, why was my childhood dentist still using ether in the 1960s?! Freaking dentists.)

I suppose if you really were a masochist, you could visit the Penn Dental Museum, the existence of which is  indicated on the large bronze plaque (no pun intended) at the base of Evans' monument. So hey dental professionals out there, heed the words of philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873): “Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.” Get it all in now, while you can, cuz there ain't no dentists in the afterlife!!!

It’s day two now, and I’m going to make myself a Motrin smoothie and lick my wounds. If I sound a little bitter and have made some sweeping generalizations, that's because I'm viewing it from the pain perspective. Maybe it all began when I first saw Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man  (1976).... Naw, I hated dentists since I was a kid. By the way, if you dislike having dental work as much as I do and have never seen Marathon Man, do yourself a favor - don't.

Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man (1976)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cemetery Traveler Celebrates 3rd Anniversary!

I find myself this month on the precipice of a fourth year writing the Cemetery Traveler blog. Yes, its been three solid years of my dark tourism adventures. By my count, 132 articles have been published since I began in May of 2010. Have I run out of things to say? No, but my laptop gave up the ghost last week. Had to go out and get a new one. All that lives is born to die, sigh (except sourdough yeast, I suppose). Hopefully, I won’t upset this one as much as I abuse it verbally while I am forced to learn Windows 8.

I have over 100 followers now, a fact that humbles me and of which I am deeply honored. Thank you all for reading and I dare say, you are now prepared for your next step in the indoctrination.

At the beginning of April, 2013, I had an exhibit of my work in Philadelphia that I called “Symptoms of Cemetery Photography" (click link to go to that blog posting). I meant it as a nod toward the way cemetery photography has influenced my art and techniques in the photographic medium. That in itself is a later blog. For now, I just want to acknowledge how making cemetery photography has opened up tangential doors for me. I also want to acknowledge the people who have made these opportunities possible for me.

So, here are a few highlights from last season, places I’ve gone both literally and figuratively, through The Cemetery Traveler – symptoms, as it were, of my cemetery photography:

•Grandma's New Headstone

I wrote a blog “My Grandmother’s Grave,” in June of 2012 about how my grandmother (who died in 1964 when I was six) never had a headstone on her grave. I felt pretty strongly that she should have one to mark her history for future generations. We should all have some anchor to the past, as became evident to me last year when so many people contacted me about the headstones dumped under the Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia (see "Resting in Pieces Along the Delaware River"). My Mom and I got together and she had a stone made for Anna Jones, her mother. It was placed on her grave this past fall.

•The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery

Ed (L) with "Find-a-Grave" administrator, Russ Dodge (photo by A. Selletti)
After my years of adventures at the (formerly abandoned) Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia, I was I’ve evolved from an awed bystander to an involved conservator. This past year I applied for a position on the Board of Directors of The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery (a nonprofit organization). I was voted in as the Communications and Technology Committee Chair. I’m glad I can put my writing and photographic skills to good use, honoring the memory of those interred in the cemetery through restoration, historic research, education and community engagement. I’ve been writing and posting photographs about the cleanup events on the Friends’ website, which you can see here (an odd sub-specialty of “event photography” which you don’t normally think about!).


Book cover – I had given permission to the British Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research organization to use one of my photographs for the cover of its February 2013 Journal (JCFAR)  issue “On Love.” Cupid and Psyche never looked so fine!

•Imaging Technology

Diana (top) and Holga cameras
This past year, my DSLR forgot how to autofocus, so I had to replace it. This was a mere week after I made the momentous decision to plunk down $400 on a high quality digital point-and-shoot camera (or, as I call these little miracles in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, DPS cameras). That was a load of money, but the Canon G9 DPS and the Canon XTi DSLR are working out just fine. Oh, and I bought another Holga at the Philly Punk Rock Flea Market around Xmas time for six dollars (!), so I plan to do more lo-fi work with that. Speaking of new gear, we bought our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Olivia an iPad, since all her nannies have had one. She’d been clamoring for her own and we didn’t want her to get too far behind the technology curve. I plan to take cemetery photos with it.


B'nai Israel/Hebrew Mutual Burial Ground in West Philadelphia
Genealogy never was my strong suit (it still isn’t), but I’ve gotten myself involved in a few related situations which I wrote about last year. After posting a blog about the (formerly abandoned) B’nai Israel Cemetery in West Philadelphia (see "Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries"), I was contacted by a descendant who asked for help photographing the inscriptions on the stones so he could enter the information onto the JewishGen Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR), so I did this. There were about a hundred headstones.

Monument cemetery stone
Recently, a graduate History student asked me if she could use my photos and information about Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery in a presentation on the effect of urban renewal on rural cemeteries in Philadelphia, using Monument Cemetery as one case study. This Victorian cemetery was condemned by the City of Philadelphia in 1956 and the tombstones and monuments were all dumped into the Delaware River. So many people responded to my two 2011 blog postings (see "How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed") about this atrocity that I decided to make a third visit (read about this in "Beachcombing in Hell") in 2012 to document as many names and dates from the discarded headstones as I could. In addition to writing about this visit back to the Delaware Riverfront under the Betsey Ross Bridge, I subsequently uploaded twenty-five separate names, with photos of the headstones, to the Find-a-Grave website.

Finding lost graves
I’d like to add that my postings about Monument Cemetery have generated considerable public interest and media coverage, which will hopefully result in a more respectful final resting place for these stones. As I said in my blog at the end of April, 2013, "Finding Lost Graves", people need a tangible link to their past. These discarded memorial stones may be the only tie some of the descendants have to their ancestors.

The aforementioned experiences are after the fact, retrospective studies. Finding graves in the here and now is a new experience for me, and one which I wrote about in the aforementioned blog, “Finding Lost Graves.” I have been afforded this opportunity through my involvement with the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, and I must say that it is a truly rewarding experience.

In Summary

So, these are just a few things I’ve covered this past year in the Cemetery Traveler blog. If you missed any postings, I invite you to go back into the archives and look them up (you can type in a keyword or phrase in the “Search” box at the top left corner of the page).

 “The world is a lot more complicated than most people believe,” wrote Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in their novel, Good Omens (1990). Cemetery photography, for me, has been a good omen, which has resulted in a variety of complications, or symptoms, about some of which you have just read. (By the way, since I had to create a password for my new laptop, I incorporated the words “Good Omen” into it.)

What, There’s More?

Yes. I intend to continue to draw aside the veil and explore the mysteries of dark tourism for as long as I possibly can. I’ll continue to ask the hard questions and point out the ironies in our attitudes toward death and mourning, calling it the way I see it. Occasionally this gets me into hot water with the irascible types, but the investigative reporter side of me steps in and tries to point out both sides of the argument (if there are any). 

Happy to say that my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Olivia seems to be following in my footsteps. I took her gallery-hopping this past First Friday in Philadelphia and as we walked into a particular moodily-lit place, she spoke her mind. The gallery was showing photographic “scenes from the Chelsea Hotel” (in New York) and a sign outside said they were going to be showing Warhol’s movie “Chelsea Girls.” The gallery was crowded with serious-minded bohemian-looking mods, talking art as only artists of that type can. As we walked into their midst, Olivia said in a loud voice, “Do they have snacks?” Man, did THAT cut through the affectation!


Purchase Ed's book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, from